Posts Tagged ‘George Sanders’

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When we discuss the pantheon of great Hitchcock films, we very rarely mention his 1940 war comedy-thriller Foreign Correspondent. There’s good reason for that: in comparison with the rest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Foreign Correspondent occupies a lesser category and could be blocked in with such films as Stage Fright, Saboteur, and Dial M For Murder. But even the worst of Hitchcock’s films have something to be said for them, and Foreign Correspondent is a far cry from being the worst. It is neither a great film nor a bad one, neither wholly successful nor a round failure. It has just enough hidden in its depths to make it intriguing, without ever quite making it great.

Foreign Correspondent features Joel McCrea as the titular correspondent Johnny Jones, who in the first few scenes changes his name to Huntley Haverstock and becomes the foreign correspondent for the New York Globe. Jones’s editor Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) send our hero to Europe to drum up some “real news” about the European situation. Once in London, Jones encounters Mr. Van Meer (Albert Bassermann, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role), a Dutch diplomat who has been trying to keep the peace in Europe. When Van Meer disappears during a luncheon thrown by Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the head of a united peace organization, Jones becomes embroiled in European politics and the machinations of a shadowy group bent on advancing the European war machine and obtaining vital secret information. Things are further complicated with Jones’s burgeoning romance with Fisher’s daughter Carol (Laraine Day) and the timely appearance of fellow newspaperman Scott ffolliett (George Sanders).

The first twenty minutes of Foreign Correspondent play like a wartime screwball comedy, beginning with the re-christening of Jones as Haverstock because his editor doesn’t like his name. Jones encounters Van Meer in a taxi on the way to the luncheon (the film’s MacGuffin, actually), but the political issues are promptly superseded by the adorable love/hate relationship that quickly develops between Jones and Carol. In fact, for much of the film’s opening act we see very little of that so-called Hitchcockian touch, with scenes that might have been shot by Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges. It’s a perfectly entertaining opening, but we’re all waiting for something important to happen.

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The important event turns out to be the apparent assassination of Van Meer on the steps of a conference building in Holland. The scene has that Hitchcockian feeling, as a beautiful crane shot over a sea of umbrellas establishes an immediate sense of foreboding. That same sea of umbrellas impedes Jones’s pursuit of the assassins through the streets, as bullets fly and at least one innocent bystander loses his life. Jones eventually springs into a car that contains Carol and Scott ffolliett (that’s two small f’s), and a chase through the Dutch countryside ensues. The rightly praised sequence involving a windmill and the uncovering of at least part of the villains’ scheme finally convinces the audience that, yes, we are watching a Hitchcock film. It’s a tense series of events, punctuated by humor from both Sanders and McCrea, and the well-known “Hitchcockian Blot” of a windmill turning against the wind.

From there, the film moves along at a strong pace, mixing the screwball romance with some recognizable “Hitchcockian” set pieces, each grander and more tension-filled than the last. Foreign Correspondent actually has more in common with Hitchcock’s British work than it does with his more famous American movies. The slow-burning screwball opening recalls The Lady Vanishes, while moments of humor provided by British and American character actors highlight moments of tension. Jones is an All-American hero lost in the morass of European politics that he either cannot or does not want to understand – a bit of a change from the stolid British types of Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps.

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The cast of Foreign Correspondent is an excellent one. McCrea and Sanders set each other off perfectly, a meeting of nationalities attitudes that never veer into caricature. McCrea is a forthright hero with a good heart and a rather narrow vision of politics (his very American “let’s have a showdown” is repeated enough times for it to be taken ironically). But McCrea is a good enough actor to play the part of Jones with a lightness that never becomes silly, and a concern for humanity that supersedes his more naive aspects. His passion for Carol is genuine, as is his desire to tell the truth about what’s happening in Europe, if he can ever figure it out. Meanwhile, Sanders as Scott ffolliett is the unsung hero of the picture, occupying centre-stage for much of the latter part of the film after the director has apparently grown tired with his young lovers. ffolliett is one of Sanders’s most sympathetic and complex roles; yet another proof that Sanders was a very good actor when he put his mind to it.

Herbert Marshall occupies the difficult role of Fisher with a dash of charm and earnestness that we might not expect, his smoothness both charming and suspect from the start. Albert Bassermann’s Van Meer is the philosophical center of the film, a diplomat desperate to keep the peace and recognizing all too well that he shall fail. Laraine Day might come off as a touch too earnest and forgiving, and she has none of the strength of character we usually see in the best Hitchcock heroines, but she’s far from a poor actress and her character, while undemanding, provides a consistent lightness in the midst of the dark that permeates the second half of the film. The all-too-brief appearance of Edmund Gwenn, playing against type as a vile assassin, provides one of the film’s greatest sequences.

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If Foreign Correspondent does not come off, it’s largely due to a confusion of plot and tone. While Hitchcock regularly blended light comedy with thriller, Foreign Correspondent fails to follow through on some of its promise. The film has several climaxes, and what’s at stake for Jones et al. is not always clear, as though the situation in Europe became more important as the film was being made. The immediacy of the propaganda aspect means that the film becomes heavy-handed with its message, and Jones and Carol become too representative of the earnest young couple trying to survive in a world gone mad.  Several speeches evidently inserted for propagandist effect appear a bit overwrought to modern eyes.

That being said, there are so many wonderful and truly spectacular cinematic moments in this film, it’s a shame that the whole does not perfectly hang together. The scenes at the windmill and at the peace conference I’ve already mentioned; there is also a tense sequence atop a cathedral that perfectly demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to generate audience suspense. The final sequence aboard an airliner makes for one of Hitchcock’s most visceral, intense moments, but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Foreign Correspondent was made in 1940 and released at the beginning of the Battle of Britain. As such, it is indeed a masterpiece of propaganda – such a masterpiece, in fact, that it received praise from Joseph Goebbels, who remarked that it “will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries.” The film ends with a call to America, to realize just what is going on in Europe and to take steps to stop the “lights from going out” all over the world. It has a immediacy to it only present in the best films of the period, a sense that the outcome is uncertain and that war, for America as well as for Europe, is imminent.

 

 

 

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Although I am a rather jaded film viewer, there are times when a movie still has the capacity to surprise me. It’s even more remarkable when that movie was made all the way back in 1940, based on a novel written about a hundred years before that.

I really should not have been so surprised at The House of the Seven Gables. After all, it stars two of my favorite sinister gentlemen: Vincent Price and George Sanders. They play brothers (of course they do), one good, the other bad. In the surprise of the century, it’s Mr. Price who gets to be the good guy as Clifford Pyncheon, the eldest son of the Pyncheon family. He resides in the House of the Seven Gables with his father Gerald (Gilbert Emery) and his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay). Things are not well at Seven Gables, though; Gerald and the younger son Jaffrey (Sanders) have managed to squander the family fortune and Clifford plans to sell Seven Gables and go to New York with his fiancee Hepzibah (this is the Victorian era: that’s totally cool).

Jaffrey’s not a nice man, though – he’s a greedy little rat who believes that there’s a secret treasure hidden somewhere in Seven Gables, and therefore does not want to give up the house. The battle rages between Jaffrey and Clifford, who wants to be out of the house and out from under the weight of his family history. Things go south for poor Clifford when his father suddenly dies during a verbal fight and his brother accuses him of murder.price-gables

The whole of the story is wrapped up in the Pyncheon family history. The first Colonel Pyncheon falsely accused a man of witchcraft in order to obtain his land. Later crimes are committed by the powerful patriarchs of the family – a fact which only Clifford wants to admit to. Clifford and Hepzibah try to escape from the cycle, only to be pulled back in by forces of greed and bitterness.

The actors  anchor The House of the Seven Gables. Price and Sanders are  stars we’re used to seeing in older incarnations, but here (at least at the beginning) they’re young and vibrant. Price especially carries his role off with great aplomb, first as the young joyful Clifford desperate to begin a better life, and then as the down-trodden older man released from prison after almost 20 years.  It’s a testament to Price’s acting ability that this will be the same man who creeps us out in The House on Haunted Hill. In The House of the Seven Gables, he’s never been more likable or attractive.

Sanders has less to do – he does not get to exercise his considerable smarmy charm, although his sardonic baritone is in full force here. He’s an interesting counterpoint to Price’s earnestness, even if the character he plays is largely one-dimensional.

Margaret Lindsay likewise deserves kudos for her role as the patient Hepzibah, who loves Clifford so deeply that she never stops trying to obtain his liberty. Lindsay goes from being a joyous young woman to an embittered matron, but she does not lose either her kindness or her passions. Lindsay gives her a gentility often missing in broader caricatures of the ‘old maid’ – she is a decent, loving person, choosing to live a life of solitude rather than give up on the man she loves. The reunion of Clifford and Hepzibah is perhaps one of the most moving and understated scenes I’ve ever experienced, a result of excellent performances on both the parts of Price and Lindsay. The entire film is worth it just for that one moment of beauty.

I’m surprised and happy that I can recommend this film as highly as I do. While by no means a perfect movie, it’s a remarkably effective one. A Victorian melodrama as only silver-screen Hollywood can make them, it nevertheless transcends the usual sentimental bluster through an excellent cast and a good script. It is moving because it seems so very human.

OK, a little misleading.  I’m not talking about REAL bad men.  Not really nasty no-good sonofabitches.  I’m talking about fake ones.  Bad boys.  Bastards.  Assholes.  Villains.

There’s just something about them, isn’t there? They’re not anti-heroes; they’re just the bad guys.  You know that at the end of the movie, or the book, or the play, they’re going to either be dead, or heading to jail, or at least punished for their misdeeds.  Most of the time.  Not always, anymore, but at least in mainstream media the bad guys still tend to get it in the end.  And we don’t really want it any other way.

Effing Mice Not Gonna Sing No More.

I have a fascination with villains.  My favorite character in Disney was I was a little tyke? The cat Lucifer in Cinderella.  He was mean and fat and wanted to eat all those annoying little mice and I loved him.  Not that I wanted him to win in the end; no, not at all.  But I enjoyed watching him be bad.  I enjoyed the fact that he just did not care.  He was a jerk, and I loved him.

Many years on and my fascination with villains has not waned.  Best Shakespearean character? Iago.   And he’s listed as literally ‘A Villain’.  Not a soldier, a commander, a husband, a lieutenant, a friend … nope.  Just ‘A Villain’.  That’s what his character is and he fulfills it, better than any other Shakespearean villain.  He’s mean and evil and hates everyone, including himself.  He murders his own wife, he destroys his own friend, he drives Othello to destruction, he gloats and grimaces and makes the audience complicit in his nastiness.  He’s hateful and cruel.  He has no real motivation, no reason to do what he does … except that he’s a villain.  And he’s delightful.  He’s far more interesting than Othello, at least to me.  He’s defined by his villainy.  At the end of the play, does he beg for forgiveness? Does he confess to all the terrible things he’s done? Nope.  He refuses to say a word.  He’s responsible for the untold destruction of almost all the other main characters and he does not care.  He just doesn’t give a shit.

So, why villains? What makes them so fascinating that they sometimes even overshadow the heroes? John McClane is a badass in ‘Die Hard’, but where would he be without the sneering, sexy Hans Gruber? We all hope Robin Hood saves the day, but Guy of Gisbourne is pretty fucking cool (and he’s Basil Rathbone).  George Sanders made his career out of being an erudite, purring villain.  And he’s more delightful to watch than most of his antagonists.

"In movies I am invariably a son of a bitch. In life, I'm really a dear, dear boy." --Sanders

Part of it, I think, is simple sex appeal.  Villains, often because of their villainy, get to be sexy in ways that heroes simply don’t.  The hero has to fulfill all these stereotypes.  He must be pure, intelligent, gentlemanly.  If he has flaws, he must overcome them.  He never gets to do bad things because he’s the hero.  We’ve got to root for him.  When he does something nasty, he must justify it in the end.  Otherwise we won’t accept his triumph.

The villain has no such difficulties.  Shoot innocent people? Done.  Kidnap the heroine? Sure, why not.  Cancel Christmas? You don’t get any presents.  He gets to sneer and make snide remarks (Rickman, Irons, and Oldman are heirs to Rathbone, Rains and Sanders in that department).  He’s often erudite, urbane, an aesthete, an intellectual.  He tends to get the best lines, in books, in movies and in plays.  He can be mean and sarcastic and do horrible things, and at some level we forgive him, we’re not bothered by it, because he’s the villain and that’s what he does.  The villain, in other words, does not carry the moral weight of the world on his shoulders.

"Why, yes, this beard is natural. Why do you ask?"

Hitchcock understood this.  His villains tended to be likable, complex individuals, while his heroes tread the lines of hypocrisy.  Consider the lackadaisical All-American boy detective (more or less the ‘hero’) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’.  A duller romantic figure never existed.  The battle of ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is really between Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright, the Old and Young Charlies.  And Cotten is charming, funny, frightening but incredibly enjoyable to watch.  Then there’s the sociopathic Brandon in ‘Rope’, while Jimmy Stewart find himself descending deeper and deeper into a hypocritical netherworld.  The dedicated lovesick Alexander Sebastian in ‘Notorious’, versus the cold and even cruel hero Devlin.  And the charming Johnny of ‘Suspicion’, who gets to be both hero and villain in one.

The most distressing of these villains in the Hitchcockian oeuvre is Bob Rusk in Frenzy.  He’s a rapist, a murderer and a psychopath.  He’s also more interesting, funnier and more charming than the supposed hero.  We follow him throughout the film, having seen him murder a woman in one of the most terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever had to sit through.  And what is really disturbing is that we actually begin rooting for him.  He scares the hell out of us, but as soon as he’s caught, the movie’s over.

Rusk is an extreme example of charming villainy, but he makes the excellent point that part of what we like about villains is how easily they charm us.  The villain forces us to examine a dark side of ourselves.  Half the movies we see and books we read (detective stories, thrillers, adventures) are directly wrapped up in the darkness.  We want to see the murder, hear the screams, laugh at the one-liners.  We want to see good triumph, but there’s something delightful in evil getting its day.  Hitchcock always pushed us closer to discomfort, making us shift in our seats as we realized that the man we like the best is also the man doing the worst things.  He reminded us that the good guys aren’t always so hot, that there’s something attractive, fascinating in the bad.  It’s disturbing, it’s uncomfortable, it’s … dark as hell.  But it’s true.

Oh, besides that, villains also look like this: